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World: Report Says China Overtakes U.S. As World's Leading Consumer

Workers at a port in China's Shandong Province For decades the United States has consumed the lion's share of the world's resources, but this situation is changing fast as the Chinese economy surges ahead. According to a report released this week, China has already surpassed the United States in total consumption of every basic food, energy, and industrial commodity, except oil. But the economic boom is also feeding consumption of consumer goods and services.

Prague, 18 February 2005 (RFE/RL) -- In China's southern Guangzhou City, Hospital No. 1 is doing a brisk business combating baldness. An increasing number of white-collar workers are disbursing the equivalent of $240 to $360 for hair-transplant surgery.

Hou Xianzeng, a hair-loss consultant at the hospital, told Reuters Television that with standards of living in China rocketing, more and more balding men in distress have the means to do something about it.

"Chinese people really pay a lot of attention to appearance, and their hair, especially after their standard of living has improved," Hou said. "In the past when society was not so well-off, it was not really important for them. But lately as standards of living have been rising, it is more common for them to seek a more attractive appearance. People are really paying more attention to the way they look."

Real per capita gross domestic product in 2003 was seven times the level of 1978 when economic reform began. Economic growth, which boomed at 9.5 percent last year, has translated into substantial gains in real wages and living standards.

David Webb is a China specialist who works for the Economist Intelligence Unit in London. He told RFE/RL that fast economic growth has enabled the emergence of a middle class, especially in the eastern seaboard cities like Guangzhou.
China's steel usage is now more than twice that of the United States.

"There is quite a lot of people with some money to spend," Webb said. "New registrations for passenger cars reached 2.4 million in 2004 [while] 10 years previously hardly anyone in China had cars. More Chinese people are able to go on oversees trips. So in 2004, 29 million Chinese traveled abroad. That was an increase of 42 percent year on year."

According to a report released on 16 February by the Earth Policy Institute, China is overtaking the United States in the total consumption of one resource after another. Lester Brown, president of the Washington-based environmental institute, told RFE/RL that "if we look at the basic commodities -- grain, meat, oil, coal, and steel -- China has overtaken the U.S. in four. Only in oil does United States still lead. So China now becomes sort of the center of the world's raw material's market."

China's steel usage -- a barometer of industrial development -- is now more than twice that of the United States. China also leads in the use of other metals, such as aluminum and copper.

Among the big three grains, China leads in the consumption of both wheat and rice, and trails the United States only in corn use.

China's homes and factories burn 40 percent more coal than the United States.

But the U.S. continues to use three times as much oil as China. American dominance in automobiles is one reason why.

Brown said that China is not only becoming dominant in consumption of raw materials but also in the total purchase of increasing numbers of consumer goods.

The Chinese have overtaken the Americans in refrigerators, watch1 1/2 times as many television sets, and use two and two-thirds as many cell phones. The number of personal computers is doubling every 28 months.

But when translated into per capita terms, the situation is very different.

With a population of 1.3 billion, China's per capita annual income last year was equivalent to $5,300 U.S. dollars. That is just one-seventh of the U.S. per capita income of $38,000.